Work must go on despite triple-digit temperatures

In an orchard just outside Plainsburg, 150 people were picking figs Tuesday afternoon.

The temperature was already 100 degrees, and the workers, who had started at 5:30 a.m., were getting ready to quit for the day.

Next to the trees sat a truck hauling shaded seating and big orange coolers with iced water.

"I check these guys two or three times a day," said Jose Saenz, who works for farm labor contractor Olivas Farm Labor Contractors in Planada. "If there's something they need, like more ice for the water, we bring it."

The workers contracted through Saenz' business were picking for Marchini Farms in Le Grand. Saenz said the most important chore he performs is to keep his workers safe.

"I try to do it the right way," Saenz said. "I'm working with the people and the farmer — what's good for the people is good for the farmer."

Because of the high temperatures, Saenz said the Marchini workers had started earlier than usual and would quit earlier. That's becoming more and more common in the world of farmworkers.

Bryan Little, director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau, said for the past several years, farmers have worked hard to make sure they follow the law.

"In the real world, you are seeing a lot more compliance," Little said. "If you drive down the Valley, you'll see a lot more shade and a lot more water. It's an improvement that growers are making to be in compliance with the standard."

The Department of Industrial Relations' Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) oversees heat illness protection, not only in the farming world, but in all occupations. Erika Monterroza, spokeswoman for Cal-OSHA, said all employers in California have to train their employees and supervisors about heat illness protection.

"The law requires employers provide potable water and that they encourage employees to drink that water," Monterroza said. "They have to provide a shaded area for workers to cool down, if it's 85 degrees or higher."

At Marchini Farms, the shade and water are made available at 80 degrees. "It's extremely important we keep these workers safe," said Larry Newman, a foreman for Marchini's. "If it's really hot, the workers will be out here eight hours instead of nine and they'll start as early as possible before it gets hot."

Farmers who don't comply with Cal-OSHA find themselves in hot water. "We are actually shutting down operations when we find situations where the employer has ignored their responsibility," Monterroza said. "The last one shut down was in June in Coachella Valley."

That farmer had crews working in chili pepper fields with no shade, no training and no heat program.

"The farmer dropped his crew off at 6 a.m. and they had no way to get in touch with him," Monterroza said. "When we tracked him down, he was with another crew in an okra field. They had shade, but it was too far from where they were working. We shut him down as a farming operation."

Although most employers comply with heat regulations, Monterroza said Cal-OSHA takes the regulations very seriously. "People can die," she said.

At the Marchini fig orchard, the workers laboring under a muggy, hot sky were getting ready to quit for the day, since it was almost 2 p.m. Tuesday's high was 107 degrees in Merced.

"The general impression is that everyone's out here sweating — and it's just not true," said Newman. "We talk to them about what type of clothes to wear, and we make sure they are trained. And we don't just drive by a field; we stop and make sure everyone is OK."

Newman said it just doesn't pay for growers to have any issues with their workers: "It goes beyond water and shade, it's about information for the foreman and making sure people are following the guidelines. Sometimes they're working really hard and don't want to look lazy, but we'll pull them out and make them drink and sit in the shade."

Monterroza said Cal-OSHA can't do its job alone.

"We rely on employers associations, nonprofits and others to get the word out about how to stay safe in the heat," she said. "And any complaints to Cal-OSHA are confidential."

People who have complaints about employers can call Cal-OSHA at (877) 992-2567.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or